Some heresy history

On of the interesting things to emerge from today’s discussions on blasphemy (MPs ended up falling over each other trying to dump the New Zealand law on it) was this very interesting profile: Lloyd Geering: A man of faith

Lloyd Geering’s new book tackles life’s purpose in a time of science and why God’s absence demands we face up to our biggest challenges.

Geering is well known for being prosecuted for heresy fifty years ago – during the lifetimes of quite a few of us.

It’s hard to fathom that this gracious, scholarly, tolerant man was once – still is, by some – considered a dangerous renegade.

In 1967, Geering gave a sermon dispensing with the immortal soul. He wrote an article calling for a more modern interpretation of the resurrection.

The Presbyterian Church brought charges against him for “doctrinal error’’ and “disturbing the peace of the church’’. Heresy.

Thanks to broadcasts of the trial, Geering found himself starring in an early ecclesiastical version of reality television and characterised as everything from “the new Galileo” to the Antichrist.

Still, he had people debating theology on buses. “Well, exactly. In fact, I said, in the course of my defence, at the so-called trial, that the Church had long been complaining that it wasn’t getting any publicity. I said, ‘Now you’ve got all the publicity you want and you close it all down.’”

As a sort of theological whistle-blower, he was under attack. “At the time I got lots of terrible letters and threats. At one stage the police wanted to put me under police protection. I said it wasn’t necessary.”

He was effectively acquitted – “What they said was that the charges had not been proven” – but victory was not entirely sweet. “I thought the Church would move on to make a real leap forward, but it didn’t. I even had friends who refused to shake hands. I mean, I knew them. They refused.”

Very unchristian-like.

That must be crushing. “Yes, it is,” he says a little wanly. “In some respects moving to a new position got me out of that.”

He was offered a post at Victoria University. “The chancellor, who was a Roman Catholic, said when I arrived, ‘We thought we’d let the Presbyterian Church off the hook.’”

He can laugh now.

Most of us will laugh at this now but it was a real prosecution through a real court at the time.

A New Zealand church wouldn’t dream of trying anything like this in the 21st century.

37 Comments

  1. patupaiarehe

     /  May 9, 2017

    It reminds me of the infamous ‘Menstrating Mary South Park’ episode, that the Catholics complained publicly about. Thanks to their efforts, Channel 4 had a record audience that night, keen to know what all the fuss was about…

  2. Maggy Wassilieff

     /  May 9, 2017

    Argumentative Scots… they seem to enjoy a good heresy trial
    http://www.nzjh.auckland.ac.nz/docs/1978/NZJH_12_2_04.pdf

  3. Dawson

     /  May 9, 2017

    It was not a “real prosecution” in a “real court”. The matter was determined by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church. It was a matter of internal discipline for a private organisation. You seem to think he was in front of a court of law.

    Your views on Christianity seem rather crude and uninformed. Nothing wrong with that. People are free to be as ignorant. If you want to avoid saying foolish things, however, I would advise against tossing off such hamfisted cliches.

    • Your comment seems to be rather crude and uninformed. I’m sure there are things you’re ‘ignorant’ about’.

      Having little knowledge of theological matters does not necessarily mean one is ignorant, it may simply meant they are more interested in other subjects.

      • Dawson

         /  May 9, 2017

        Errr, lacking knowledge is exactly what it means to be ignorant on a subject.

        • You could call everyone ignorant then, because none of us know everything about every subject.

          You attacked me rather than argue the topic – so you’re ignorant of how things work here, unless you chose to just resort to denigrate regardless.

          • Dawson

             /  May 9, 2017

            Most people are ignorant of a great many things. Smarter people try not to bloviate on things about which they don’t have the basic facts.

            • patupaiarehe

               /  May 9, 2017

              Which could cause one to wonder, Dawson, if you are a smart person…
              😛

    • Gezza

       /  May 9, 2017

      It was effectively an Ecclesiastical Court. Fortunately such nonsense wouldn’t be attempted here nowadays because believers & non-believers know it’s a largely pointless debate. The Bible has now been multiply re-interpreted in so many hundreds of different ways it’s a pick & choose religion & you use & ignore whatever parts of the Bible you choose to fit whatever your own particular private beliefs about Jaweh &/or his successor The Trinity are anyway.

      • patupaiarehe

         /  May 9, 2017

        I certainly wonder G, how much truth lies within the ‘good book’, after 2000 years of (mis)interpretation. IMHO, it is the most epic tale of fiction ever written.

        • Gezza

           /  May 9, 2017

          Greatest Story Ever Sold, patu. In more ways than one.

          • patupaiarehe

             /  May 9, 2017

            I’ve read both the OT, and the new, & the Book of Mormon from cover to cover twice. There are some great stories contained within all, as well as plenty of contradictions… IMHO, anyone who has read one book, and claims to have all the answers is full of shit. I’ve read hundreds of books, and the more I read, the more questions I have…

            • Corky

               /  May 9, 2017

              What did you find in the book of Mormon?

            • patupaiarehe

               /  May 9, 2017

              @ Corky
              About the same level of BS I found in the other two. A belief system intended to capture the stupid…

    • There’s no need to be nasty about it. PG made an honest mistake for someone unschooled in religious matters.

      Ecclesiastical “trials” of this nature are not common, but that does not mean they “couldn’t happen” in 2017. In the Orthodox Church they are serious affairs usually involving entire synods of Bishops. In the main they are rare not because they are unfashionable, but because blatant and defiant heresy by clergy is rare. Bishop Lazar Puhalo comes to mind – he was “tried” and essentially agreed not to speak on certain matters in exchange for retaining his ecclesiastical office in “retirement”. That is more common than more classic cases of open defiance.

      In Protestant terms, I think even they now realise that when you believe in “sola scriptura”, you can make the “scriptura” say anything you want it to say, so excommunication becomes a comical exercise. It’s really more the preserve of the Catholic traditions of faith which draw on Apostolic Tradition in the foremost.

  4. Corky

     /  May 9, 2017

    Geering was right. The bible does not teach man has an immortal soul if I remember correctly. The Church was also correct to charge Geering. You either believe in your religions
    sacrament’s or you don’t. If you don’t get out.

    • patupaiarehe

       /  May 9, 2017

      The church used to have ‘strength in numbers’, which it no longer enjoys. As any religious cult, who shows up on my doorstep will tell you, they are not welcome here. They will be told to leave nicely, and be given ten seconds to do so. After that, they will be introduced to the business end of my semi-automatic paintball gun.

    • Gezza

       /  May 10, 2017

      That is largely correct. The current scholarly consensus among the Western logians of theo seems to be that the Old Testament makes no reference to an “immortal soul”, although of course it is difficult to predict what the consensus might be 20 or 30 years from now depending on whether the concept at that time has the potential to repel or attract new members.

      According to The Holy Wikipedia [pbui] in the last six decades, Eastern Orthodox theologians have also widely accepted conditional immortality, or “immortality by grace”, of the soul, returning to the views of the late 2nd century, where immortality was still considered as a gift granted with the value of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

      I believe that theologians from all the major branches of the Christian faith are also united in their view that the wolf did not actually dress up as grandma or literally speak to Red Riding Hood.

      • One has to be careful with one’s meaning here. Orthodox theology accepts that the soul’s existence is “conditional” on the will of God. But it would also be the Orthodox view that God, having created a living soul, could or would not by His very nature reverse that creation. In fact, to do so would entirely nullify the purpose of Christ’s saving acts. It’s one of those long lists of theological debates that fascinate Western Christians, but simply make no sense in any Orthodox theological paradigm.

        • Gezza

           /  May 12, 2017

          It’s an imaginary thing that doesn’t exist in reality, Blair. So theologians can play with it till the cows come home. I guess it can represent many concepts, but my own rationalisation of it was that it was one’s theoretical immortal spirit.

          • No, no, you don’t get to do that. If you want to talk theology, you can’t just come back with “well there’s no God anyway” when it gets hard. You either engage properly or not at all.

          • Gezza

             /  May 12, 2017

            Well, if I did contend there is no God, then I can dispense with any discussion of theology because theology is theories about God. If we were to discuss the existence or reality of God, then we should first establish which God we are discussing & its properties. There are several Gods & concepts of God & associated properties.

            I do not contend there was no creator of the universe. I cannot know that empirically one way or the other. The creator could even be the universe for all we know.

            But as for the idea that we may have an immortal soul, whatever that might be thought to be, I simply contend that we don’t. I don’t think we have an afterlife either.

            • patupaiarehe

               /  May 12, 2017

              If there is a creator G, who created that creator???

            • Gezza

               /  May 12, 2017

              Well, yes, that is one of the conumdrums for theists. The answer is invariably that for the universe to exist and to have had a point of creation, it had to be created, from nothing, so therefore a being external to the nothing, usually with the property of being eternal, had to create it because everything else must have a beginning. But if the creator did not need a beginning, why can the universe not be eternal. Quantum Physics simply breaks down at the point of the singularity. So No one knows what properties existed and what was there before.

            • In the Orthodox Church, theology is not “theories” about God. That’s very much a Western idea. In fact, it was a matter of a Council of the Church in the 14th Century, when the monk Barlaam contended for the view against Gregory Palamas, who asserted that knowledge of God could only truly be gained experientially through prayer. That’s where we get the phrase “navel gazers” from, by the way – it was a slur on the Eastern monks made by Barlaam and his followers.

              So when I talk about the theology of the soul, I don’t speak of a theory but what is obvious at hand. Something immaterial makes our material bodies move around. Whatever that thing is is a soul. So if we are talking about immortality, which Christianity in its entirety is predicated on, we have to account for the soul somehow or when we talk of the resurrection we are simply otherwise talking about zombies.

            • patupaiarehe

               /  May 12, 2017

              @both of you
              Here is what really intrigues me about the whole ‘human condition’, and any arguments about religion. We live on the ‘third rock from the sun’, that sun being a fairly insignificant star, in one galaxy out of millions. Yet somehow, everything is ‘all about us’. My theory on earth, and all races here, is that we are abandoned slaves…

            • Gezza

               /  May 12, 2017

              Thanks Blair. I’ll respond below.

    • Geering was wrong. The OT is full of references to the soul, especially in the Psalms and the other wisdom literature. The OT also references the resurrection. A second Ccntury Saint, Athenagoras, was pretty clear in arguing that the notion of a soul and a resurrection go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.
      http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0206.htm

      The argument is ultimately Saduceeical. Jesus knocked it out of the park when he told the adherents of such beliefs that “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Unless Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive in some way, the Torah is false on that point.

  5. Alan Wilkinson

     /  May 12, 2017

    I remember Geering’s trial and statements. He seemed to me at the time desperately trying to save a baby that had dissolved in his bathwater. Why he wanted to remain in his Church was beyond my logic. Judging by the congregational haemorraging that followed, many came to the same conclusion.

    • The notion of Presbyterians even believing in God, let alone charging anyone with heresy, is rather curious in this day and age!

  6. Gezza

     /  May 12, 2017

    Blair: “when I talk about the theology of the soul, I don’t speak of a theory but what is obvious at hand. Something immaterial makes our material bodies move around. Whatever that thing is is a soul. So if we are talking about immortality, which Christianity in its entirety is predicated on, we have to account for the soul somehow or when we talk of the resurrection we are simply otherwise talking about zombies.”

    Well, we do know what makes our bodies move around. I understand that when Judaism, & then Christianity & Christian theology were getting up & running people were scientifically ignorant, But we now know a huge amount about what makes our bodies move around, physiologically, chemically, electrically, neurologically etc. These are things that really are obvious at hand. The soul is not obvious at hand. Quite the reverse.

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  May 12, 2017

      Presumably on that basis Blair credits all sentient beings with a soul – down to insect level at least?

    • I’m reminded of the line in CS Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace tells Coriakin “In our world, stars are big balls of flaming gas”, and Coriakin replies “Even in your world, that is not what stars are, but only what they are made of.” Understanding the mechanical process of what moves a body, and understanding the source of that vivification are not the same thing.

      • Gezza

         /  May 13, 2017

        Oh, ok, thanks Blair. At the most basic level, we know that all living things including plants exist to survive & reproduce, & we know how they do this – what happens with fertilization & cell division & how the genetic coding determines the sequence of production of the necessary specialised cells to create the whole animate entity, and the physical & chemical processes by which it continues to sustain & thus animate itself and the degenerative processes that eventually mean it wears out from the environmentally induced damage its life-sustaing systems have resisted and expires – but, if you like, not what makes them start to do it. I guess if you want to, you could call that first impetus a soul.

        How abiogenesis occurred – whatever it was that animated the first self-reproducing molecule – we don’t know. It may have a been a chance event, it hasn’t been demonstrated in a lab yet, but it took a few billion years to occur anyway & we’ve only had labs capable of experimenting with all the known likely possible elements & factors for a hundred years or less.

        We do know to an extremely high level of scientific probability that every other self-reproducing life form that followed descended via known & demonstrable evolutionary processes from that first self-reproducing cell, and how all these life forms reproduce and survive until they age & die, when the self-sustaining capacity is lost.

        An unseen force to continue to animate living things through their life-cycles is not required. It is a hangover from the days of scientific ignorance.

  1. Some heresy history – NZ Conservative Coalition